The Beaverslide: Homegrown Haying Technology
by Lisa Ernst and Alexandra Swaney
August 2004 has brought lots of cool rain. We are sitting in the home of John and Lois Beck. They are smiling, since they had most of their hay stacked before this year's wet spell set in. We've asked them to tell us about their beaverslides, large hand-manufactured devices made from lodge pole pine and fir, which they use to stack the hay they grow each year to get their livestock through the winter. John has been haying for 40 years, starting at age nine with his father, and later working with his grandfather, Soren Beck. Combined, four generations have ranched this area since the late 1880's when John's great grandfather, also named Soren Beck, came here from Denmark. Part of the Beck operation is easy to see from Highway 12 between Elliston and Avon. Dense hay meadows fan out from a natural bottleneck of grey-brown cliffs to the west. The Little Blackfoot River, the highway and the railroad tracks all run through the meadows and then squeeze between the cliffs as they approach the town of Avon. The railroad and the highway bisect the meadows straightaway while the water meanders through them. Let your eyes follow the willows growing along its banks, and you can trace the course of the Little Blackfoot River as it winds across the fields. The Beck ranch house, barns and buildings sit at the widest part of the valley; the foothills skirt its outer edge.
Anyone driving this section of road between Missoula and Helena has seen one of the features that mark the Becks' operation in the driver's memory. From the lush (or autumn-tinged or snow-covered) meadows at the side of the road one sees a tall structure rising, triangular in shape and made of long sections of lodge pole pine. This is the beaverslide, a mechanical device for stacking hay, made largely of peeled lodge pole timber. Nowadays many ranches have turned to machinery that allows them to put up their hay in neat rolls, but the Becks still use this simple, elegant construction. And what's more, they build it themselves. This simple stacker has been in use since John can remember. It will create stacks of 15 to 20 tons of hay that will keep for three to four years or more.
When John and his wife Lois moved to the ranch in the late 1980's, their first job was to build a replacement beaverslide for the hay fields on the south side of the highway. Lois reminisces about the added work they had to do because there was no power on that part of the ranch at the time. Everything was done with chain saws, handsaws and hand tools. She laughs now at the amount of time it took to drill the numerous holes through the 10 x 10 beams that make up the skids, allowing the slide to be towed between the different sites where the hay needs to be stacked. Nowadays they'd bring a generator along. A well-constructed slide will last fifteen years or more.
According to John, the exact source and time the beaverslides came into use is unclear. Some people say they were first used in the Big Hole, and others report having seen old plans for the slides originating from the Oregon Extension Service. Each family that continues to use this haying technology — the Becks, the Graveley's and Senecals-- will create different variations of the size, length, steepness, backstop size, and capacity of the slides. Each family refines its model according the specific needs of the terrain they have to hay. Even the material varies: some families use metal to make them and it is said that these days, all of the Big Hole beaverslides in the Big Hole are constructed with metal.
The construction of a new slide is determined by the existing slide, especially the length and steep angle. The main section of the slide is constructed of two green 55-62 feet lodge pole pine poles. The 15-20 foot span between the poles is called the floor and is constructed of 1 x 4 slats roughly 40 feet long, two thirds of the length of the poles. A frame of 24 x 20 foot wood poles is called the backstop, and forms an immense right triangle with the floor and the slide. The spaced slats in between the main poles are easily seen.
When the Beck's oldest son Nick attended Helena Vo-Tech, he was the object of laughter from his classmates, who made fun of the antiquated technology of the family ranch. Yet over the years, with the refinements that each generation has added, this simple technology has proved itself worthy to live on into the future. Its capacity remains the same with the streamlined size and efficiency of the buck rake, mowers. With the addition of metal to the beaver slides and base of the backstops, the economy can't be beat. Nick might have the last laugh when it comes to efficient haying implements.
Note: there is a quite nice page on draft horses with beaverslides on the Grant Kohrs Web site: http://www.nps.gov/grko/photosmultimedia/multimedia.htm